This weekend, the Spartan hockey team returns to the ice for the first of 18 straight B1G contests, traveling to Columbus, Ohio to take on The Ohio State Buckeyes. The Spartans begin the second half of the season with a 6-9-2 record and have been a hard team to get a feel for all season. Some nights, the Spartans dominate the 3rd ranked Michigan Wolverines, while others they are dominated by Western Michigan.
The Spartans finished third in the Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park and were a shootout loss away from playing for a title. The two biggest developments coming out of the tournament were the play of goaltender Jake Hildebrand and forward Matt Berry. Hildebrand has been the best Spartan player this season, especially after the first month of the season. Hildebrand has improved his save percentage to .928 (slightly better than last season) and lowered his goals against average to 2.35. Much like last season Hildebrand will give this team a chance to win, assuming his offense can produce enough to be in games. Berry, last season's leading scorer, scored a power play goal in each game at the GLI. Those two goals were the first of the season for Berry, as he has appeared in only 5 games returning from an offseason surgery. Hildebrand, Berry, and the freshman second line will continue to be the most important assets for this Spartan hockey team.
The Buckeyes have had an interesting first half of their season. The Buckeyes have dressed six goaltenders this season, including Aaron Gretz, the catcher from the OSU baseball team who played hockey in high school. The Buckeyes lost freshman Matt Tomkins to injury, and sophomore Collin Olson left the team early in the season after being third on the depth chart. Freshman walk-on Logan Davis has played five games for the Buckeyes and posted a 3-2 record. The problems in net forced the Buckeyes to add a goaltender midseason from the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, Christian Frey, who won two games last weekend before even starting classes at the school.
With all this turmoil in net, the Buckeyes have had a middle of the road defense, surrendering 2.94 goals per game, which is the 2nd most in the B1G. However, with a 2nd ranked offense in the country, the Buckeyes were able to win more games than they lost in the first half of the season. This conference match-up will be a good measuring stick for both programs on where they will stand in the B1G this season.
Time/TV: 6:30 Friday, 7:05 Saturday. On BTN Friday night, streaming BTN2Go both nights.
Coach: Steve Rohlik is in his 1st season behind the bench for Ohio State, taking over for Mark Osiecki who was surprisingly fired this past summer. Rohlik was hired after serving as interim coach for a week and was on the staff as an assistant for Osiecki. Rohlik played his college hockey at Wisconsin and was credited with recruiting many of the players that won a national championship at Minnesota Duluth in 2011. Osiecki had improved the recruiting at Ohio State and, after his firing, six former Buckeye recruits have decommitted. Four have since either suited up for other college programs or committed, one is still seeking a college and one player opted for the OHL. Rohlik will have to rebuild from these defections to compete for titles in the B1G.
Players to Watch: Ottawa Senators draft pick Ryan Dzingel is once again the leading scorer this season for the Buckeyes. After a 38 point season as a sophomore, Dzinglel is the leading scorer in the B1G with 23 points in 16 games and 10 goals scored this year. Fellow junior and Senators draft pick, Max McCormick, is second on the team with 18 points and 7 goals scored. Freshman Nick Schilkey from Marysville, MI has three power play goals and 11 points in 16 games played.
3 Keys for MSU Success
- Shots- The Spartans are last in the B1G, as the only team who averages less than 30 shots per game. It's not clear which freshman goaltender will be playing for the Buckeyes this weekend. Last weekend Tomkins was dressed but sat back-up to Frey. Either way, these are two freshman goalies who haven't played much college hockey and should be tested often. The Spartans should strive to play like they did against Michigan, where they got 40 shots on net
- Penalty Kill- The Buckeyes have the 13th ranked Power Play in the country, scoring on 21.52% of their man advantage chances. The Spartans penalty kill has been improving since a horrid start this season, as they have finally made it to the 80% mark. On a weekend where Michigan State may have to allow less than 3 goals to win a game, the penalty kill will be crucial.
- Defenseman- The defensive unit had their best game of the season against Michigan. Not only did they stifle the Wolverines to 29 shots but they also made key rushes and pinches to lead to offensive chances. If the offense is to improve in the second half of the season the defenseman may have to provide a much larger spark than they have thus far. Look for Travis Walsh and Jake Chelios to be the biggest contributors along the blue line.
Analysis: I tend to be a dramatic fan when it comes to Spartan hockey, but I believe the next two weekends for the Spartans are a benchmark for Tom Anastos' program. This team has shown flashes of great play but has been wildly inconsistent. This series against the Buckeyes and next weekend against Penn State present the best chances for MSU to get a sweep in the B1G. If the Spartans want to finish in the top half of the B1G they must get points against these two programs. I'll refrain from a prediction as I swore off them after watching this team play so erratic at the GLI. The Spartans are looking for their first road win of the season (counting GLi as a neutral site) and probably needs to score at least 3 goals each night to have a chance at a win.